All Your Earth Are Belong To Us
HIGH Fantastic blending of Tower Defense and Shmup genres.
LOW Fast-forwarding through a cutscene and letting the enemy get the jump on me.
WTF How is one commander in charge of the entire planet?
With email, social media, and advertising everywhere, sometimes it feels like we hear about games for years before they come out. In contrast, it’s an absolute delight when something pops up with zero fanfare preceding it. Even better? When an unknown turns out to be great.
Case in point: I hadn’t heard a thing about X-Morph: Defense before I got an offer to review it, and if it wasn’t for a couple of intriguing screenshots I probably would’ve deleted the message and moved on. I’m quite glad that I didn’t.
This game from Exor Studios is an Active Tower Defense title. In addition to common Tower Defense concepts — players construct towers along predetermined enemy paths with the aim of stopping them from reaching their base — the ‘active’ portion usually adds an avatar to control in real time for the purpose of supporting defenses that need help, or for taking the fight to the enemy proactively.
In X-Morph: Defense, the story starts with a twist by having the player take on the role of an enemy drone defending invaders in the process of taking over Earth. Large energy processing plants drop from space, crash onto the surface and become home base, so the player must destroy tanks, helicopters, mech suits, and any other forces that mean to repel the invaders.
Although it sports a generic-sounding title that doesn’t paint much of a mental picture, the naming of X-Morph actually reflects its content accurately — while metallic and robotic in nature, the aliens are highly malleable and have quite a few tricks up their sleeves.
For example, the player-controlled drone has multiple forms, the shape of its body depending on what weapon it’s using at the time. After a few upgrades, it can rapidly cycle between lasers, rapid fire, bombs, and missiles, and each setting also has an alt-fire. It can also go into an invisible “ghost” mode to plant new towers, travel faster, and escape fire. This drone is wonderfully designed and flies nimbly through the skies — it feels like a powerful ship that actually could hold off a human army.
The developers weren’t only smart with the drone, though. They show equal thoughtfulness and consideration for the player when it comes to interacting with the towers necessary on each map.
When the drone sets up defenses, all towers it generates spawn in the same basic form. They can be left like this for general defense, or they can be clicked on to assign a specialization – flamethrower, anti-aircraft, mortar, and so on. It’s a streamlined system that’s fast and easy to use. This in itself is great, but what makes it even better is that any tower can be changed into another form or relocated for no cost.
The freedom from being charged for tower-building resources is a godsend, and it’s hard to fully express what a huge bonus this flexibility is. If the player makes a small error in placing a flak tower and it’s not covering the airspace it should, there’s no penalty to have it transform, burrow through the ground and appear in a more effective area. Need a flamer for ground troops instead of a heavy laser? No problem. By not dinging the player for every action, the devs show a confidence in their design that’s truly admirable — they’re not here to increase the difficulty of their game by nickel-and diming the player, they lay it all out and want players to engage as fully as they can.
In addition to the flexibility of the tower system and the power of the drone, the developers also have one more trick up their sleeve, and it’s a doozy. While there are calm periods between waves of oncoming enemies when towers can be erected and battle plans crafted, X-Morph: Defense transforms into a high-octane shooter once a fight begins.
Rather than letting players sit passively and watch their towers do all the work, there’s always something happening on the battlefield that needs attention, requiring the drone to zip back-and-forth at all times while also keeping an eye on incoming streams of invaders. Attacking aircraft come in from all sides, enemies often have healing units that need to be taken out immediately, and there are various types of heavy troops which are tough enough to withstand most defenses – a little assist from the skyborne drone works wonders in holding them back. Even better, after every few levels a giant boss in one form or another will show up and require not only new tactics, but fast fingers.
There’s hardly time to take a breath in later levels, but this unusual balance between high-intensity action during missions and periods of absolute calm when analyzing battlefields and arranging towers is perfect, each part complementing the other and establishing a remarkable sense of pacing from start to finish.
While X-Morph: Defense may not reinvent its wheel, nearly every decision it makes is a smart and correct one, and this out-of-nowhere project with a dull-sounding title really hums. It’s fast and furious, yet this wonderfully-crafted tower defense/shmup hybrid does everything it can to be a welcoming, player-positive experience that doesn’t sacrifice the quality of its strategy or the intensity of moment-to-moment play. X-Morph: Defense might need to spend a little more on PR, but don’t let the lack of buzz disguise the fact that it is absolutely worth the of the price of admission.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Exor Studios. It is currently available on PS4, XBO and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There is a cooperative two-player campaign but no time was spent in this mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Violence, Blood, and Mild Language. The violence in the game is mostly an alien drone or towers shooting vehicles. There are some humanoid troops that must be taken out, but they’re tiny and there’s no gore at all. I can’t recall any noteworthy salty language. Overall, I’d say this is safe for any kid old enough to hang with the difficulty.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled,which is great. The only issue I noticed with audio cues was that individual towers can sometimes be attacked by human mortar units. There is an onscreen indicator, but there’s often a lot going on. Without the ability to hear the voiceover saying “towers are under attack” it’s likely that the warning will be missed. It’s a rare occurrence, but something that should be noted.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway